By Jim Miller
Time to give credit where credit is due. It was not the noblesse oblige of individual politicians or the Democratic Party that brought us the $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, it was the labor movement. Surely, the governors of New York and California and their fellow Democrats in those statehouses deserve credit for listening to the cry for economic justice and having the good sense to do the right thing, but the historic victory of the Fight for $15 that we have just celebrated would never have come to pass without the bold vision and prolonged struggle of working people standing together and demanding what many called impossible.
As Steven Greenhouse rightly noted in the New York Times, back in 2012 when the Fight for $15 began “many scoffed at their demand for $15 an hour as pie in the sky.” Nonetheless, the labor movement led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pushed long and hard, starting at the local level.
Greenhouse outlines how:
The issue has motivated thousands of protesters to join the Fight for $15’s periodic strikes: What started in one city ultimately swelled to protests in 150 American cities. By many measures, it has become the biggest labor protest in decades, with a wide spectrum of supporters, from college students and inner-city workers to janitors and nursing-home aides. The movement helped to get voters in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac to approve a $15 minimum wage, and not long after in Seattle itself and San Francisco, followed by Los Angeles and Pasadena.
“These victories made people believe this wasn’t some crazy demand,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has spent millions of dollars underwriting the Fight for $15. “These incremental victories began to add up, and $15 moved from a demand to a standard. Now the fight is, how fast can you get it.” She added that private employers, including Nationwide Insurance, Facebook and U.P.M.C., Pittsburgh’s largest hospital chain, have increasingly embraced a $15 minimum.
In “The Labor History Behind the Historic Minimum Wage Law,” California labor historian Fred Glass puts the Fight for $15 in an even broader context by observing that:
As union density declined over the last half century across the country and the globe due to outsourcing, automation, capital mobility and anti-union laws enacted by conservative political regimes, organized labor had to come up with new tactics to protect workers. Especially with national agencies originally created to level the playing field for workers like the Department of Labor, National Labor Relations Board and OSHA struggling with reduced funding and staff, battles for workplace justice devolved to states and cities.
Here in California the agreement reached by Governor Brown and unions to move the state to a fifteen-dollar minimum wage over a number of years was built on the shoulders of prior successes in cities, airports, and other local jurisdictions, led by unions, worker centers and central labor bodies, but requiring mass action by workers themselves to demonstrate the seriousness of the need and firmness of their resolve.
And in many cases this meant unions devoting significant resources and great amounts of time and effort to fight for economic justice for workers not represented by their unions . The same holds true for the community groups, students, and other activists who came out to protest time after time to support the principle of economic justice for all workers even when it did not directly apply to them. This move away from a narrow bread and butter perspective toward a broader social justice unionism goes back to the future and reinvents the old labor slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” by embracing community-labor alliances and the principle of working class solidarity across traditional boundaries.
Thus the real heroes of this moment are not those in Sacramento or Albany but the nameless workers out of the spotlight who had the courage to stand up and demand basic dignity in the workplace and to insist on the value of their lives and labor. It was their impossible demands and their “outside game” in the streets that made the inside game in the capitols happen.
The truth is, as Glass writes, that:
The law [that was enacted last week] relied on the understanding of the governor and legislature of the need for a more realistic minimum wage for people who deserve their share of the California Dream. But that clarity of vision by our elected officials depended on something often overlooked in this age of political unrealism: that most achievements of economic and social justice originate not from above, but from below, and at the center of that movement, pushing up toward something better, we find unions.
Indeed, here in California, Governor Brown was not always on board with the idea, frequently expressing skepticism about moving too far too fast. Perhaps the biggest reason why the compromise was reached in Sacramento is because the Governor knew that if he didn’t do something, it was quite likely a ballot measure could pass even over his opposition.
Why? Because years of organizing and advocacy had made the idea popular with the public. It was that, not the machinations of the policy wonks, that got the goods. As Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation observes:
How did this reform go from being scorned as “extreme” to being enacted? Consensus politicians don’t champion it. Pundits and chattering heads tend to ignore it. Many liberal economists deride it as too radical. The idea moved only because workers and allies organized and demanded the change.
So here’s to the people who have and continue to work long and hard for social and economic justice in an era of historic inequality, particularly those workers whose stories you’ll never know.
It’s Not Over: The Fight Against McJobs and for a Union Continues This Thursday April 14th!
Just because the state’s minimum wage will eventually hit $15 an hour does not mean that the struggle for rights and dignity for low wage workers is over. Now the hard task begins of trying to unionize service sector workplaces that have been notoriously hard to organize.
So come out this week and support fast food workers in their struggle for a better life:
Strike Against McJobs and for $15 and a Union!
11:30 Fight for $15 March will begin at the NBC Building (3rd/ Broadway.) * Park at Horton Plaza for 3hrs FREE.
Other Action Site and Start:
*RALLY SITE – City College Students will gather at 12:00 noon at City College at Park/A St. “We can see your greedy side!”